In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse displays matronly characteristics that establish her as a mother figure to the adolescent Juliet. The first occurrence appears in Act 1, Scene 3 when Lady Capulet asks the Nurse to call for Juliet. The Nurse yells for Juliet to come, and when Juliet asks, “How now, who calls?” the Nurse responds with “Your mother” (I. ii. 5-6). Here, the Nurse’s response suggests she is actually Juliet’s mother, for the Nurse is actually the one calling, but it is for Lady Capulet. Further, when Juliet arrives and Lady Capulet wishes to discuss with her the proposed marriage to Paris, Lady Capulet at first sends the Nurse away, but then realizes the Nurse is just as close to her daughter as she is. Lady Capulet delivers the following lines:
This is the matter.—Nurse, give leave awhile,
We must talk in secret.—Nurse, come back again.
I have remembered me. Thou’s hear our counsel. (I. iii. 8-10)
In this quote, Lady Capulet reveals that the Nurse is allowed to hear the intimate exchange between mother and daughter. This is significant because most servants would not have been permitted to stay during such private exchanges. Therefore, this shows how the Nurse is much more like a mother figure than a caretaker.
When she is permitted to stay, the Nurse launches into a comedic rambling that is idiosyncratic to her character. She recounts Juliet’s birth and early childhood. She delivers the following lines:
Marry, I remember it well.
'Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,
And she was weaned—I never shall forget it—
Of all the days of the year, upon that day.
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall.
My lord and you were then at Mantua. (I. iii. 24-30).
In this excerpt, the Nurse reveals that she was nursing Juliet when an earthquake erupted, and that Lord and Lady Capulet were away in Mantua. In the line, “For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,” the Nurse explains that she had to put wormwood, a medicinal herb, on her breast to stop Juliet from breast feeding. This not only establishes the Nurse as Juliet’s wet-nurse, but places her in the role as her “biological mother,” especially since Lady Capulet was away.
Throughout the play, the Nurse exhibits genuine care for the well-being of Juliet, something that is inherently absent from Lady Capulet’s demeanor. For example, when the Nurse is seeking Romeo to give him Juliet’s regards, she tells the young Romeo the following:
“What she bade me say, I will keep to myself. But first let me tell ye, if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior, as they say. For the gentlewoman is young, and therefore, if you should deal double with her, truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing” (II. iv).
Here, the Nurse is looking out for Juliet’s heart and naivety. She warns Romeo to not lead Juliet on and to not trick her into loving him. This demonstrates the true love that the Nurse has for Juliet, for she simply could have passed the message on to Romeo without any warning, as she was originally instructed. Thus, the Nurse assumes a mother figure to Juliet because she not only raised her from birth, but guides her and looks out for her as if she was her biological mother.